Less than a year ago (March 2018) a blanket of clean white snow lay heavy across the district, the county and the country and there was little or no traffic—but no fresh air because woodsmoke was way over World Health Organisation guidelines. Technically, the 24-hour average of ultrafine particles (PM2.5) exceeded the 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air that the WHO sets as the maximum—by a large margin. The finer the particles, the more damaging they are for human health, as they are able to pass from lungs into the rest of the body.
A small but growing group lit wood burning stoves and fires, adding to the pollution from the continent, and pushing us over a limit the WHO reckons we should only exceed three times a year. In March we were over for three consecutive days.
So how many stoves caused this? No one really knows. The government estimates 7.5% of homes nationally are heated by wood; locally the number may be higher. The effects are dramatic: the Air Quality Expert Group (a Defra Committee) has shown that the best, cleanest and most modern single stove, burning the best wood in laboratory conditions, produces the same amount of PM2.5 every hour as 18 new diesel cars or six new diesel lorries.
So next time someone wealthy enough to afford and install the latest and best eco-stove lights up, it’s like six HGVs driving up and down their street an hour every hour. That’s what the neighbours get. What about inside the house where everything is warm and cosy? In Copenhagen, they’ve measured their very best (least polluting) stoves: after one hour the pollution in the house is 3.5 times the most polluted street in the country.
If wood stoves were a new invention, they’d be banned. If mobile, they’d fail their MOT. And that’s the best stoves. Most homes with stoves, or burning wood in open fires, have perfectly good central heating. Look at house sale ads showing a ‘Defra’ approved stove—often there’s a radiator next to it. Many suggest that if your home ‘benefits’ from a stove; paint it bright colours and grow a pot plant in it.
Oh and by the way, burning wood in an open fire anywhere in our district is not illegal under the 1993 Clean Air Act and so not subject to a £1,000 fine, as Folkestone & Hythe District Council has not declared the district a Smoke Control Area.
Everyone can stop burning solid fuel, and immediately improve air quality. Thirty-eight percent of PM2.5 comes from domestic sources; only 13% comes from vehicles.
So why are PM2.5 particles so bad for us? They are one 30th the size of a human hair. Small enough to get from our lungs into our bodies. Hannelore Bové (University of Hasselt) has found particles in the cells of most organs of the human body, including brains. Young vulnerable children’s lungs, once damaged, stay damaged. Medical studies are linking PM2.5 to Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease as well as chronic breathing conditions like COPD. Wood smoke (PM2.5 soot) contains carcinogens also found in cigarette smoke. In the ‘smokeless’ fumes of a modern ‘eco-friendly’ wood burner, Kåre Press-Kristensen (Danish Ecological Council) found 500,000 microscopic particles per cm3. The same equipment found fewer than 1000 particles per cm3 in modern trucks’ exhaust fumes.
We mustn’t overlook the links between wealth, aspiration, and desirable items like wood burning stoves. There isn’t space here to do justice to the issues of class, race and air quality or explore their connection to gentrification in our district.
So when you get home on a cold, wet miserable Friday night after a long week at work, think again before lighting up. Treating yourself to a pizza? Choose one that’s not cooked in a wood oven. Why? If a commercial pizza oven is equivalent to three of the best stoves (an underestimation), your order will set the equivalent of 18 HGVs running. Those 18 HGVs run for about 50 hours a week over six nights, 52 weeks a year. The neighbours are forced to sleep in the air pollution produced cooking that pizza, and once inside it takes a lot longer to disperse than outside.
This post first appeared in the Bristol Cable and we are grateful to them for permission to reproduce it here.
The Shepwayvox Team
Journalism for the People NOT the Powerful